UNTIL RECENTLY, GOSSIP COLUMNISTS WERE dismissed as all hat and no tattle—journalistic washerwomen who picked through the nation’s dirty laundry with little concern for the consequences, let alone the truth. They trafficked in fluff, not substance; certainly not news. Matt Drudge changed all that. Say what you will about the Walter Winchell of cyberspace, there is no disputing that he broke the Monica Lewinsky story and revealed key details before anyone else did, including the existence of a now-famous stained dress. Make way for the New New Journalism.
As the author of Texas Monthly’s Low Talk column, I got a renewed sense of purpose from watching Drudge trump his critics—and it made me think about life in the gossip trenches. What’s it like today, and how has it changed? Do the war stories still resonate? To find out, I convened an on-the-record gathering of the state’s preeminent practitioners: the doyenne of dirt, Maxine Mesinger of the Houston Chronicle, who has been writing her column for some forty years; Alan Peppard of the Dallas Morning News and Susan Yerkes of the San Antonio Express-News, each with more than ten years in the biz; and the amicably belligerent Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman, with barely a year on the job the relative newcomer of the group. We met for lunch on a Friday afternoon in November at Anthony’s restaurant in Houston. The main dish was, of course, dish.
WHAT THEY CALL THEMSELVES
Peppard: Everybody asks, “What column do you write?” When I started, it was the social column, but that just doesn’t apply anymore, because now we live in the age of celebrity, and there are very few people who care about what the debutantes are doing. So I call it celebrity, society, famous people, rich people, boldfaced names. But it doesn’t always work. Prince Edward was at a party in Dallas, and he asked me what I did. I told him that I write a society column. And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You mean gossip column.” He was very stern about it.
Mesinger: I call myself a gossip columnist.
Corcoran: I do a lot of cold calling, so I’ll say I’m a personality columnist or gossip columnist or celebrity columnist—whatever would stroke who I’m talking to. Like, I won’t call up Matthew McConaughey and say I’m a gossip columnist. I’ll say I’m a personality columnist or that I write an Austin column. You have to present yourself as somebody they want to talk to, because “gossip” is kind of a dirty word.
Yerkes: “Gossip” may be a bad word, but the word “buzz” is extremely popular these days. The idea is that this is something that people are talking about, and it may not be a person—it may be a phenomenon. I sometimes say I am a sociopolitical gossip columnist, because it’s what comes up in conversations. And a lot of times the things that come up in conversations are not really mentioned in the paper because they’re too small for a story, but they’re what everybody’s talking about.
IN PRAISE OF BOLDFACE
Peppard: People tell me regularly, “You know, I just scan your column and look for names of people. If there are people I know, I read it, and if there aren’t, I don’t.” It’s rather simple: Give them lots of that boldfaced type, because that keeps their eyes on the page. I find when I’m going on for four or five paragraphs and I haven’t mentioned anybody’s name, the story is too involved.
Corcoran: I like to throw in names that will stop a person. Like, you know, Madonna. People are scanning the column and they see Madonna’s name, and they go, “Wait.” Sometimes my editors will even run a mug shot of a person I’ve just thrown in there.
Yerkes: I kind of try sometimes to bring them in with what’s topical, like the fact that Ken Starr was sitting on a briefcase during his entire testimony to make himself look taller. Who knew that? [ Editor’s Note: Apparently, not the Express-News, which later ran a correction; it was Clinton lawyer David Kendall on the briefcase.]
Mesinger: I kept looking at Starr and thinking there was something terrible that he did. I think he sucks.
WHERE THEY GET THEIR ITEMS
Mesinger: You know, I don’t have to make calls much anymore. I’m just flooded with calls. I’ve done this for forty years. They know the writer, and they know the work. So when entertainment people come to town, 99 percent of the time I’m the one who gets the call.
Peppard: It can be easy to get lazy because, like Maxine says, after you amass a certain number of columns, people know who you are. I write four columns a week, so the items do come to me. But I think it’s the beginning of the end of writing anything interesting when you just let them come to you.
Yerkes: And you know, going outside your city, sometimes you end up with great items. I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago at a conference, and after the gala, I started talking to this big cancer guy. He ended up going out with a couple of us on Bourbon Street. At about 2 a.m., as we’re walking along, I said, “You know, we’ve got a big breast cancer institute in San Antonio.” He said, “Well, you did.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Baylor just hired that whole crew away from you. I heard they signed the deal last week.” So I called Baylor when I got back home, and apparently the medical community were the only ones who knew.
Peppard: The things you learn on Bourbon Street.
Yerkes: That ended up being a front-page story the day after I wrote it, and it’s because I went out on Bourbon Street with some guy. Part of it is just being able to be in those places with people, and they relax and start telling you stuff.